By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - When does the tournament start and finish?
The first match takes place in Sao Paulo on Thursday, June 12 between host nation Brazil and Croatia. There are 32 teams taking part and the final will be held at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on July 13. This is the 20th World Cup and the first in South America since 1978. Brazil are the only team to take part in every one and the only nation to lift the trophy five times.
Who are the favorites?
All the big bookmakers make Brazil favorites, with most pricing them at 3/1 to win their sixth title. Argentina are second favorites, partly because they have such a favorable draw. Germany are third followed by world champions Spain.
Who’s a good outside bet?
Belgium are fifth favorites at 16/1 - low odds considering they have only got past the last 16 once in 1986. France, sixth favorites at between 18/1 and 25/1 depending on the bookies, could be worth a flutter, while Colombia have a relatively easy draw and can be backed at 25/1.
Who will be the best player?
There is no question as to who the three favorites are. If Lionel Messi wants to be considered as good as Diego Maradona he needs to take Argentina to the final, at least. Cristiano Ronaldo‘s Portugal probably won’t get that far but the Real Madrid striker has the perfect stage on which to shine in a group with the United States and Germany. Home boy Neymar was the stand-out player of last year’s Confederations Cup and he will expect nothing less than a sixth World Cup for the hosts.
Can we expect a lot of goals?
Not if the recent trend continues. The average number of goals per game has fallen in every World Cup since 1994 when an average of 2.71 goals were scored each game. By South Africa in 2010 the average had fallen to 2.27. The last World Cup at which the average exceeded three goals was in Sweden back in 1958.
What milestones should we look for?
Germany striker Miroslav Klose can equal Ronaldo's record of 15 World Cup goals if he gets on the scoresheet. If Algeria do not score in their opener against Belgium, they will be the only country to play six straight World Cup games without hitting the net. Spain keeper Iker Casillas has kept seven clean sheets in 15 matches - three more and he will equal Peter Shilton and Fabien Barthez. He is also 84 minutes shy of Walter Zenga's 517 minutes unbeaten in 1990. If United States coach Juergen Klinsmann or France boss Didier Deschamps steer their teams to victory they would join Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as the only men to win the trophy as a player and as a manager.
Will stadiums be finished in time and what are they like?
Six were ready for last year’s Confederations Cup and should be in perfect condition. There could be problems at the other six – in Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo, Manaus, Cuiaba, Curitiba and Natal – especially with the internet and in areas around the stadiums, which in some places still look like a building site. Most of the stadiums, though, are architecturally impressive, outside and in.
What sort of crowds will we see?
Ticket sales have been encouraging with about three million snapped up so far. With 64 games that means the average crowd would be about 47,000 which is normal for the World Cup and the same as in 1950 when the tournament was last held in Brazil. One thing is certain, the average won’t beat the World Cup record of almost 69,000 in the United States in 1994.
What will the weather be like?
Brazil is huge so fans will need coats for games in the south where the temperature can fall almost to freezing at night. In the north, it will be hot and humid. Water breaks will be essential in the north, especially during afternoon games and the tempo probably won't be that fast.
Will the World Cup be hit by protests and riots like last year’s Confederations Cup?
The short answer is that no one really knows. There could be protests and strikes and some disruption seems inevitable. But it is unlikely we will see the same huge protests as last year. If there is mass unrest, the police and army will be on hand in large numbers to control the protestors.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ken Ferris)